On August 6 and 7, Ethiopian security forces were reported to have shot dead about 90 demonstrators in the Oromia region, which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, and in the Amhara region to the northwest.
In July, the demonstrations had spread to Amhara from Oromia, to which they had largely been confined.
They began there as a protest against the government’s integrated master plan to develop the infrastructure of Addis Ababa and adjacent cities in Oromia.
The government backed off that plan, but the demonstrations then became a wider protest, expressing grievances against the government and its response to the protests.
The Amhara demonstrations were apparently sparked by an attempt by authorities to arrest some individuals thought to have links to the Eritrean government and other dissident elements it supports. But this quickly turned into another protest by people agitating for the return of Amhara land that was transferred to the northern Tigray province in 1991.
Human rights advocates and observers estimate that at least 500 people have been killed since November last year, mostly by live ammunition fired by security forces, and that tens of thousands have been detained — and some tortured. The government contests this figure and says that the protests were not peaceful; police officers were also killed and government and private properties were attacked.
Since elections last year, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition holds all the seats in federal and regional parliaments, making legislative criticism unlikely. The independence of the courts regarding politically sensitive cases has been questioned, journalists are arrested and nongovernmental organisations are restricted.
Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission has a specific mandate to investigate alleged abuse by security forces but its independence and credibility, too, were questioned when it reported to Parliament in June that the lethal force used by security forces in Oromia was proportionate to the risk they faced from the protesters. The commission admitted, however, that government used excessive force in the Amhara region.
Africa and the international community have been almost entirely silent.
Donor countries and others have said little in public about the crackdown, apparently because of Ethiopia’s importance as a partner in the fight against terror (mainly Somalia’s al-Shabab), in peacekeeping and in regional security issues. Ethiopia has more than 8 300 personnel serving in eight United Nations or UN and African Union hybrid peacekeeping missions, plus another 4 395 in Amisom, the AU peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
It has been playing a vital role in the fight against al-Shabab in Somalia.
Given al-Shabab’s designation as a terrorist organisation, it has thus also been seen by its main Western allies, particularly the United States and United Kingdom, as a critical partner in the war against terror.
The Ethiopian government is widely seen as a responsible custodian of its country’s economic development through its investment in major infrastructural projects such as dams, railways and highways.
But there are now some signs of growing disenchantment among the country’s allies and in the wider international community.
On August 10, the UN’s top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, told Reuters that his office had seen no genuine attempt by Ethiopia to investigate and be accountable for the killings — and so had asked Ethiopia to allow an international investigation, especially the reported use of live ammunition by security forces. Addis Ababa, however, insists it can and will conduct its own probe.
On August 21, even Ethiopia’s strongest international ally, the US, issued an unusually strong critique.
While acknowledging that Ethiopia does face “real external threats”, Tom Malinowski, US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, wrote on the online news site allAfrica.com that “it is from within that Ethiopia faces the greatest challenges to its stability and unity. When thousands of people, in dozens of locations, in multiple regions come out on the streets to ask for a bigger say in the decisions that affect their lives, this cannot be dismissed as the handiwork of external enemies.”
Excessive force, detaining thousands of protesters, arresting opposition leaders, restricting civil society and shutting down the internet were “self-defeating tactics” that would not silence opposition, but rather make them more uncompromising and increase instability, he wrote.
He told Ethiopia that its “next great national task is to master the challenge of political openness, just as it has been mastering the challenge of economic development” and promised the support of the US “and all of Ethiopia’s friends” if it tackled this challenge.
Does this mean the old ground is shifting under the feet of the Ethiopian government? Does it face the imminent prospect of real pressure — even from the US?
Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, hopes so. “But I’m not holding my breath,” he adds. “The US government does not speak with one voice on Ethiopia.”
While Malinowski’s bureau was keen to exert more pressure on Ethiopia’s government, “other US agencies have a vested interest in keeping quiet”.
These include the US Agency for International Development, “which wishes to protect its very sizable investments on development in Ethiopia”, and the department of defence, “which values its security partnership with Ethiopia and appreciates the helpful role that Addis has played in advancing regional security in places like Somalia and the two Sudans”.
“These internal differences of opinion mean it’s unlikely that the United States will get tough on Ethiopia unless the situation there sharply deteriorates.”
Downie acknowledges that the US faces a diplomatic dilemma in Ethiopia.
“If it speaks out too loudly and too forcefully on political rights, it risks being shown the door by a self-confident government that has other partners to choose from.”
Downie says that China may have more leverage, but that Beijing is not likely to rock the boat. Yet he says that too could change. “China is interested above all in stability and will act if its sees its interests impacted by chronic unrest, as we saw in Sudan and South Sudan.”
He also suggests the UN sustainable development goals were another lever that could be used. Ethiopia played a leading role in framing these goals and one, SDG 16, demands inclusive, peaceful societies and access to justice.
All of this suggests we should expect no magic wand to the Ethiopian problem.
The silence from Africa and the world seems unlikely to break, at least not in the foreseeable future.
Peter Fabricius is a consultant for the Institute of Security Studies.